Mother, daughter find each other by chance in Guatemala

Friday, April 17, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 16

Berta (left) always prayed she would find the daughters she gave up for adoption. Miranda Kovach located her mother on a trip to Guatemala.

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Everyone seemed a little more curious about Miranda Kovach’s heritage than she was.

Maybe the Nashville woman was too afraid to wonder when she had so little information to go on. But last month, she found herself crying in the arms of a mother who was so bereft at their separation 29 years ago, she couldn’t even bring herself to look up as someone carried her baby girl away.

Growing up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and in overwhelmingly white Pocatello, Idaho, Miranda certainly noticed the stark physical differences between herself and her pale, blue-eyed parents and their friends.

Her unusual family even earned an article in the local newspaper, featuring a portrait of Natalia and Larry Hofer holding one baby apiece – Miranda and her twin sister, Antonia – with two older girls from another birth mother standing solemnly in front.

“Pocatello couple adopts ready-made family,” reads the headline, the article heavy on details about the Hofers’ quest for children but few on how it was fulfilled.

As the girls grew, so did their curiosity. But Natalia Hofer had been battling cancer for as long as they could remember, an ever-present family health crisis that didn’t lead to a lot of talk about anything potentially upsetting.

Just once, in elementary school, after shrugging off one too many nosy questions – “What are you? Puerto Rican? Dominican? Cuban? Italian?” – Miranda tentatively asked about her heritage.

Her mother’s explanation was short. “Your parents are from Guatemala. Your mom was gorgeous. She had you when she was 40.”

Natalia Hofer died when the twins were 15, and their father became withdrawn.

So those three bits of information – their mother’s nationality, beauty and age – were all they knew about their adoption until last month, when their curiosity was piqued by a friend determined to answer questions they were too afraid to ask.

Miranda had kept her Mormon faith through her mother’s death and moves to California and Nashville. A member of the Haywood Lane Chapel, her family received monthly shepherding visits from Ammon Smartt, a former religious missionary to Guatemala who is married to an adoptee.

Ammon never lost his love for Guatemala and arranged a medical mission there in March. Miranda and her husband, Kevin Kovach, should come, he said. Miranda, a stylist, could cut hair while people waited for medical treatment.

And maybe, Ammon said, at the end of the trip, they could find her mother.

Miranda brushed that part off, at first, but as the mission approached, she felt the urgency of finding documents that could help. All that was left: Her naturalization papers and a document in Spanish that listed her birth mother’s name.

Impossible, she thought.

But she underestimated what local Mormon ties throughout Guatemala, her friends’ sheer determination and, perhaps, a little divine intervention could do. With two days left in the mission, her group was loading into a car, headed to the wrong city on outdated information to find Berta Oliva Salvador, Miranda’s birth mother.

An English-speaking stranger appeared out of nowhere.

Where are you going? he asked.

They told him.

You should go up to the census office first, he said. They’ll know where she is.

He was right. Miranda even snapped a cell phone shot of a picture of Berta on the computer screen, then drove to a more recent city of residence – tiny Cuilapa – and began showing the picture to everyone who would look. Within hours, her group found a cousin.

A few phone calls later, and Miranda and Berta were set to meet on March 20 at Miranda’s half-sister’s house in Villa Nueva.

There’s a video of the reunion, mother and daughter holding each other for what seems like an eternity, the only sound sobs from a room crowded with relatives and Mormon travelers.

Miranda and Berta only had the rest of that day and part of the next to spend together, speaking through translators to piece together their stories.

The twins were born prematurely, and the doctor told Berta they had an expensive-to-treat blood disorder. With the girls’ father out of the picture and Berta barely surviving on wages from a tortilla stand, adoption was only answer.

She visited the hospital every day for six months to nurse her babies until they were healthy enough to leave the country. She could come say goodbye, the hospital administrators said, or if she had to work, she could wave as the only daily flight from Guatemala City to the U.S. passed overhead.

Berta heard the airplane’s engines that day. She never looked up from making tortillas.

But she always prayed to find her girls. After a heart attack earlier this year, she told her relatives she knew she’d never see them.

Berta knows now that was wrong, and this time, she got to see one daughter go. There’s another heartbreaking video taken at the airport, Miranda ripped away once again, now by the demands of her life back in Nashville.

Miranda cries about it still, sitting on her couch in a colorful, tidy apartment, her plans for a house upended when she and her husband spent the down payment on that long shot chance at wholeness.

They have not a moment’s regret about it.